What I’m Reading
This is one of those books that you’re at home with instantly. The author, Damian Brown, has an easy writing style that doesn’t require any effort from the reader. He’s the only doctor for Medecins Sans Frontieres in a small outpost in Africa and as you might suspect sees some terrible things. Partly, it’s political (land mine injuries), partly poverty (malnutrition) and partly treating the kinds of common illnesses that would be treatable in a first world country. Lack of facilities for operating is a major problem (as well as the fact that Damian is a doctor, not a surgeon). Surprisingly to Damian, African health workers aren’t falling at the feet of visiting doctors who appear every six months and then disappear – they actually find them very disruptive. Many ‘rookie’ MSF doctors come in with ideas and want to make changes and when that’s happening twice a year, just when they’ve got a new routine going, it’s very frustrating for them.
This book is a very honest account – it’s sad in many places; children so far advanced with malnutrition that there is no saving them, AIDs is a big problem, but it’s also rather reassuring to know that even in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by land mines, there are hospitals and people that really do make a difference and save many, many lives. Damian doesn’t take himself too seriously – he’s quite funny actually. You can find the book HERE.
I got so many books for Christmas and birthday I don’t know where to start! But I’ll being with my most recent read, above. If you like an angsty heroine (with good reason, I might add) with a weirdly dominating boyfriend, small minded villagers and a huge tragedy, then you’ll love the intricacy of The Crooked House. It’s a big story and I occasionally lost track of the characters but given its complexity, it’s told very articulately and compellingly. It’s definitely a page turner and a brilliant read for a train or plane journey where you can just just keep on going with it. There didn’t seem any part of the story that was inconsistent and I did find myself sucked in. It’s gory story told without sentimentality that allows you not to find it horrifying but intriguing. It’s HERE.
29th November 2015
My brother got me onto this book and I loved it so much that I ordered the second book Lima 3 before I’d even finished. If you ever thought that what Customs did was search your smalls at the airport, you couldn’t be more wrong. This book, written by Harry Ferguson, ex MI6, sees his introduction to a close knit team working silently and unseen to catch the drug lords. The technicalities of close surveillance are mind blowing – to keep several cars on the trail of one (with possibly its own posse of lookout cars), I can hardly explain. I just don’t know how they do it. I’d be lost after 5 minutes! Kilo 17 follows a main story – that of the surveillance and eventual arrest of Frank Davis, a notorious drug importer. Lima 3 deals with the same subject, but this time it’s the close surveillance of John Hasse and major drug dealer Volkan – and they’re all true stories. If you want a complete change up of reading material, and something that will leave your jaw dropping at the number of people needed to apprehend just one drug dealer, try this. I loved it.
If you like a very decent thriller that keeps you turning the pages long after you want to go to sleep, In Bitter Chill is exactly that. I didn’t particularly warm to any of the characters which doesn’t help, but nonetheless, was intrigued by the revival of an old case from the 1970’s. Two young girls go missing but only one, Rachel, comes back. Rachel spends her life trying to distance herself from the event but when Sophie’s mother commits suicide, it’s impossible not to be drawn back to the event. Partly through police work and partly through memory recall, the complicated story is teased out. It’s one for winter nights cosy in bed… maybe leave the light on!
The Ice Twins is a highly intense, claustrophobic book about Angus and Sarah, parents of identical twin daughters, one of whom (Lydia) dies in an accident. They decide to move to a remote Scottish island which as you might predict turns out to be a very poor idea. Not only is Kirstie, the surviving daughter, bullied at her new school, but she also believes that she is Kirstie. The parents, stuck on this island with rotten weather and a crumbly house, don’t make one sensible decision between them, and gradually begin to believe that possibly Kirstie IS Lydia. It kind of bothered me the whole way through the book that Angus and Sarah are so silly and it stopped me connecting properly with the story. Things come to a head during a storm (predictably) and that’s where a bit of spookiness enters – it’s awful to say but it could have been a brilliant story with a tighter edit and instead, it’s just a good one. At the end, I was more, ‘oh, right’.. than ‘oh, my goodness!’.
15th September 2015 I know, I know.. I haven’t stopped reading! I just keep running out of time to do any book reviews. But, I’ve found a moment and I have read some wonderful books over the summer, so here goes:
I had really high hopes of Black Rabbit Hall and it turned out to be richer than I thought it would be in terms of storyline. Wicked step-mother, four bereaved children, a wedding, a beautiful old house and unravelling the past. The problem here is the main character, Amber, who wants to hold her wedding at Black Rabbit Hall. All the other characters are interesting, exciting and you really do want to know more about them, but Amber is just…er… mushy. It’s a very strong story that deserves a stronger character than Amber narrating it.. if she isn’t being emotionally wrenched between the house and her husband to be, she’s snooping in wardrobes and wandering dreamily round the gardens wondering why it all seems so familiar. I was mentally hurrying her along to make the (obvious) connection and then we could all go home. The previous residents (the four children) had such sadness and Amber is their chance to have their story told. I think they didn’t need someone quite so drippy who loses mobile signal every single time there’s a crisis. The story wouldn’t have dragged nearly as much if she’d had a better provider.
To be honest, it takes a little while to get into this thriller which turns out not to be quite as thrilling as it thinks it is! It’s the story of a plane crash (it doesn’t dwell) and one single survivor, a baby girl. Two baby girls were aboard the plane, and with two families both claiming the child as theirs (it’s pre DNA), there is naturally a mystery to be solved. Cue intrepid investigator who spends 18 years trying to unravel the problem – add in a psychotic sister, an amorous brother, a betraying assistant and it all gets interesting. I nearly gave up on The Crash in the beginning – it really does take a long time for the story to heat up, but once it does, it is quite a page turner. I guessed the end – kind of. It’s not the kind of book you can do in one sitting, it’s a slow burner.
I really like Liane Moriarty’s writing style – after two pages you’re in and immersed which is a rare skill but it happens with every book of hers. The Hypnotist’s Love Story is indeed about a hypnotist, Ellen, whose new partner has a stalker, Saskia. While Ellen is determined that Patrick’s stalker won’t come between them, it emerges that she has been posing as a client of Ellen’s. I think you could say this is a tortured romance surrounded by enough real life that you don’t feel you’ve been accidentally caught in a Mills & Boon; if you’ve ever read anything about stalkers and their skewed logic, it seems to be highly accurate in portraying both a stalker’s mind and what it’s like to be stalked. I’ve never read anything about what it’s like for the partner of the person that’s being stalked so that element was very interesting. Although the Hypnotist’s Love Story sounds sinister, it’s actually not.. a really enjoyable read that you could settle down with one afternoon and find yourself still there at 3am!
I just feel rather lucky that I’ve discovered the Agatha Raisin series – the books are practically medicinal in their ability to charm you out of any gloom. I’ve just finished my first one (above) and know I have to have them all to keep by the bed when I’ve had a horrible day. Despite the fact that plausibility doesn’t seem to trouble the author, and once you accept that you can just settle down and enjoy the story, there was a very enjoyable plot running through this book (poisonings). Agatha Raisin isn’t your average private detective – considered long in the tooth, divorced, smoker, drinker, bossy control freak – she’s a whole lot of fun and completely relatable. Honestly, if you don’t feel well or you’re just fed up, an Agatha Raisin will make you feel better. I made the mistake of starting at the most recent book, but Amazon lists them in order so you can begin at the beginning. Find them HERE.
This isn’t a long book – it’s more or less an afternoon’s sitting but despite its lack of pages, there’s an awful lot covered! The main thread of the story is of Fiona, a high court judge, who has to make the decision whether a Jehova’s Witness child should be given blood to save his life or not. At more or less the same time, Fiona’s husband announces that he’d like to have an affair (because they hadn’t had sex for 7 weeks! on that basis, affairs would be the norm!) and she’s just a bit too tired to care as much as he hopes she will. So, a very serious issue – her decision has unexpected repercussions that have a twist at the end – but also the tale of later life relationships. I’m happy to tell you that the affair goes ahead but isn’t nearly as spectacular as Fiona’s husband hoped it might be. Which serves him right. It’s HERE.
A truly unsettling book – without giving the story away too much, Girl On A Train is, as you might imagine, the story of what a woman saw from her commuter train window. Rachel’s story is really sad – recently divorced, addicted to alcohol and jobless, she still travels into London every day because she can’t face telling her flatmate that she’s lost her job. She passes her old house, where she lived with her husband, every day on the train with a view into the garden that was once hers. She creates a fantasy couple who are living the life she had hoped to live. As the story unfolds, the vagueries of a disordered mind are absolutely key to everything that happens – Rachel can’t quite bring the memory back but knows something terrible has happened when the woman from her fantasy couple (they do exist but she doesn’t know them so she’s conjoured them up as she’d like them to be) disappears. The story is told by three key characters but Rachel is the most compelling. At the end there is a kind of salvation for Rachel when all along it seems there never can be. In many ways, the terrible situation she finds herself in pulls her back from the lethargy and hopelessness of alcohol addiction and in itself, although the journey to truth is unpleasant, you finish the book with hope for Rachel. It’s HERE.
I absolutely loved this book – it somehow manages to amalgamate all the worst traits of parents (you will recognise every single one of them from the playground) and throw in a murder, bullying, some domestic violence, assault, divorce and single parenting issues. And yet, it will still make you smile. Set in Australia (the author is Australian) in a small town, the story focusses on a school event. From the outset there are asides from various parents from the school that I found really funny as a way of illustrating how one catastrophic event can be seen in so many ways. Mainly, it’s about how gossip and jealousy can polarise a community. The writing tone has you settled in right from the beginning and continues to hold you right to the end. if I’m honest, now that I’ve finished it, I miss it. It’s HERE.
In many ways, this is a sad little book. It’s the story of twelve year old Nicky who lives in a remote part of New Hampshire. Her mother has died and she lives semi-isolated life with her father; both are yet to make their peace with the loss. Nicky finds, in the depths of a snow drift, a live baby – blue with cold. Although the focus appears to be all about the baby, its young mother (who ends up staying with Nicky and her father for a time) and their impact, brought down to its most basic, it’s about Nicky needing to find someone to love to replace her mother. You don’t really consider that in the midst of grief, there are other emotions that need somewhere to go – when the object of unconditional love is gone, it doesn’t mean the need to feel that same love goes too. I found it terribly poignant. It’s HERE.
This would probably be categorised in the list, “Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With”. The bare bones of the story are about a woman writer. Millie, who needs to lose weight as part of a lucrative project with the magazine she writes for. It’s sometimes amusing, but never laugh out loud. The character I liked best is Harry, Millie’s nosy neighbour who can’t stop interfering. There are lots of lively characters in this book which is its salvation really, as they all get dragged into the saga of Millie’s weight loss. Where I think it goes a little wrong is that Millie is very much a characture of an overweight woman – her only recourse is to lose weight and her whole life would be improved, not to mention her looks. I know it’s fun fiction, and it did keep my interest, but I was quite glad when it was over! A nice holiday read for when you really can’t be bothered to tackle anything more demanding between cocktails. It’s HERE.
This is the second JK Rowling writing as Rober Galbraith book. I love them – they’re such an easy read with a text-book hero (ex-army, emotionally wasted, heroic and kind) and a slow burning love interest (fiesty, loyal, intelligent, beautiful – and currently unavailable). The story is of a missing novelist who turns out to be murdered in very grizzly circumstances and the plot delves into the strange and competitive world of publishing. The victim himself, a failing author and all round unpleasant man, leaves a trail of distruction around him that pulls you in. It’s serious subject matter that doesn’t really plunge to the depths of current-day who-dunits which can be just too gruesome for me. There’s a bit of violence but nothing much to turn a hair at but a tight story line that keeps you reading. It’s detective-lite, if you like; you don’t get lost with too many characters and an over complicated story. I read this during freezing and miserable February and it was like hot toast and butter for the brain. It’s HERE.
This is rather a nasty book – one that plays on all your fears, particularly if you are a parent. It’s the tale of two women, Nina, who remembers Emma, and Emma who doesn’t remember Nina. Nina turns out to be psycho woman disguised in a veil of kindness and sophistication with a long-held grudge against Emma, new mum and exhausted house-wife. Nina ensures that she becomes a part of Emma’s life at a time when Emma’s maternal spidey senses aren’t working and slowly drips psychological poison upon her. The fact that most of this poison is dripped upon Emma’s very young children makes for some very uncomfortable reading. Where it comes unstuck is that the reason for Nina so disliking Emma turns out to be particularly trivial and the ending is ambiguous and abrupt. You spend the whole book hoping that Nina will be found out and that Emma will suddenly have a moment of clarity. Neither happen, so when you do get to the end, when you’ve been so drawn in, it’s a little like having a door slammed in your face. I don’t know whether to recommend this or not! Either way, it’s HERE.
I think you need to have read The Red Azelea, the best selling account of the dreadful deprivation in China, written by Anchee Min. This book is the second installment of Anchee Min’s life in which she has moved to the US from China and attempts to re-start her life away from her family and poverty. However, although Anchee Min is accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she has no English and no money. One of the conditions of being accepted into the college is being an English speaker, and she was caught out many times – so many that I don’t know how she managed to stay. But, maybe it is that suffering grave depravation gives you determination like no other. Anchee Min somehow managed to grasp the language to a certain degree – enough, anyway – that she continues, eventually becoming a home owner. It’s that middle bit that’s a bit fudgy – the path from poverty to home ownership (which ends disasterously) that isn’t truly made clear. A serious of awful tennants, a falling down house and a selfish life partner who doesn’t want to marry her eventually leads her to a better place. However, the past never really leaves, and it’s unsettling that she seems like such a harsh mother and taskmaster to her daughter, who you end up feeling sorry for. I know that women who have seen horrific things and have experienced terror do end up emotionally blindsided, but Anchee Min has stark and unforgiving views on everything from black politics to over-priviledged children. Her achievements, through extreme adversity, are outstanding and admirable, but I wished more than anything she’d been kinder and more empathetic towards her child. It’s HERE.
This is such an honest account of a fictional couple whose child is born with profound special needs. It’s interesting that the author’s daughter has cerebal palsy so I guess she’s drawn to a large degree from personal experience and emotion. There is no right way to deal with such a thing, but there are varying degrees. Anna and Tobias are the flawed couple who in out of synch waves run through every possible emotion regarding their daughter Freya. The mouseproof element refers to their delapidated house in rural France; it needs a lot of work to say the least, but while it sounds like the house from hell in terms of renovation, it quickly becomes more about the people that it draws in than the four crumbling walls. Anna and Tobias say the unsayable (‘let’s leave her at the hospital; they’ll have to send her to a home’) and think the unthinkable (‘we could just let her die’) and by doing that manage to have you agreeing then disagreeing with them in equal measure. Just as in real life, there’s no resolution to Freya’s needs; she doesn’t get better – if anything, worse – but there’s more of an acceptance that their lives are livable, if unpredictable. You feel very much an observer of the process of the acceptance and quickly drawn into the emotions. The Mouseproof Kitchen isn’t a sad book, particularly – it’s more about human nature and resiliance. I loved it – it’s a very clever book to be able to touch your darkest, hidden feelings about disablity and also find your compassion. It’s HERE and I’d highly recommend.
4th January 2015
I want to say that this is the worst book I’ve ever read, but then I think of The Dinner by Herman Koch, and know that it isn’t, quite. I was lent The Blackheath Seance Parlour by a friend, and because I live in Blackheath, and it’s a local author, I was rather thrilled to have it. I know all the places referred to, from the streets to the pubs, and that was the best part of the book – that I could conjour up exactly where events were taking place. From there on, though, inconsistencies are comedy gold. The book is based on the story of two sisters in 1842, struggling to make a living in the London village of Blackheath. As you might guess from the title, success (and ultimately, their downfall) comes when they open a seance parlour. Inconsistency wise, my favourites are that the sisters never have any money for food and are so hungry they visit their allotment to look for an old tomato or two, and yet, they are always drinking in the local pub. There’s a sub-plot in the form of a fictional novel that one of the sisters is writing that is gruesome, Hammer Horror stuff, and it’s pitted with improbabilities. But the very best blooper is when one of the sisters is incarcerated in Bedlam. She threatens to call her lawyer. Except phones hadn’t been invented in 1842. Oops.
Brain on Fire
I loved this true story by New York Times journalist, Susannah Cahalan, who was struck down with a mystery illness that almost killed her. Diagnosed variously as psychotic, bi-polar or delusional, Susannah woke up in hospital one morning unable to speak or move. She became violent, aggressive and confused, with challenging behaviour and no firm diagnosis. What’s one of the most interesting things about this book is how Susannah was let down by individual doctors who put her complete breakdown down to ‘too much alcohol’ and any number of red herring diagnoses that meant the eventual cause was discovered very late. A chance diagnosis of NMDA Receptor Auto Immune Encephalitis puts her on the road to recovery. However, it’s what happens beyond Susannah’s story that is most impactful. Since she wrote of her experience in the NYT (who, it has to be said, were remarkably patient with her long recovery and strange behaviours – more than I think would be common in any other workplace) thousands of previously undiagnosed NMDA victims have now been helped. The big impact is that this book has opened up a diagnosis path to a disease that most doctors hadn’t even heard of, never mind knew the symptoms of. A big thing happened here, and it’s a brilliant, honest read. It’s HERE.
If you’re a certain age and want to frighten yourself silly, snap up Still Alice, buy Lisa Genova. Psychology professor, Alice Howland, is 50 and has early onset Alzheimer’s. The book charts her decline and the impact on her family, and it’s truly a grim read because everything that happens to this fictional family is happening to real families. I guess the family dynamic is the most interesting part, from Alice’s husband who refuses initially to accept that anything’s wrong, but becomes both stoic and resigned over time. Ultimately, his resignation to what’s happening to Alice becomes more selfish than you’d expect (a move to New York, because eventually Alice won’t know where she is so it won’t matter). Alice’s elder daughter, throughout the book, a rather self-involved character, unexpectedly steps up to the plate. Alzheimers, for this fictional family, forces everyone to scrape into their hearts and see what they can drag out in the face of adversity. Interesting, although if you’ve ever put the bananas in the sewing box and the cotton reels in the fridge, you will be diagnosing yourself. It’s HERE.
16th November 2014
This book, the debut novel by Nina Stibbe, is sheer pleasure the whole way through. To say I loved it is an understatement. Set in the 1970’s, when, surprisingly, prejudice was still rife, particularly for divorcees, it’s written through the eyes of the eldest of three children, Lizzie. It’s semi-autobiographical and I’d genuinely love to pick apart which is fact and which is fiction. Devastated by her divorce, Lizzie’s mother takes to the bottle and her bed, leaving the three children to do the parenting. It’s narrated in such a way that as a reader you can read between the lines of what Lizzie, aged 9, understands, which is why it’s so clever. Lizzie is matter of fact in the telling and as a reader you feel relieved that she doesn’t understand the whole picture but also are reminded just how resiliant children can be. However, it’s all written in such a beautifully funny way and the story catches you so hard at the beginning and keeps you all the way through. It’s not a sad book, it’s a joy of a book.
After Man At The Helm, I went straight to Nina Stibbe’s first book – the true account of being an au pair for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books and a key part of the literary set in the 1980’s. At the time Nina Stibbe is 20, has never heard of regular visitor at the Wilmers’ house, Alan Bennett, nor any of the other names from literature and art that frequently congregate. Nina’s account of life at the Wilmers’ house is taken from her many letters to her sister Victoria and charts the simple humour of family life. Wilmers has two sons; one of whom has a medical condition, so Nina’s job is mainly to cook and take Sam to his appointments. I think it would be fair to say it is an account of muddling through. The writing is rather pared back so the humour is tight but plentiful. It’s deliciously honest, entertaining and funny.
23rd October 2014
Wow.. my first ever apocalyptic thriller! The Girl With All The Gifts is an emotially difficult read, not least because the central charachter is a child called Melanie. It’s rather hard to mini-review this without giving the plot away, but Melanie is held in a prison like facility, with other children, to be scientifically studied. If you can stretch your imagination, it turns out that Melanie is a sub-breed of ‘monster’ that has taken over the world – a state brought about by the proliferation of a fungus. Mostly, Melanie and the other children are treated as the virus rather than human, apart from by Miss Justineau, their teacher. Despite the apocalyptic, disaster laden back-drop, it’s a simple tale of good vs evil. The reader instantly identifies with Miss Justineau who is kind and compassionate towards the children, who are basically all destined to end up in lab jars. I think if I’d known the nature of the subject matter, I might not have started this book … but I’m glad to have read it. It’s got a suitably ‘saved the world’ ending.. but it’s poignant to the extreme. Keep tissues handy.
I loved, loved The Rosie Project, the first book in the Rosie duet. If you haven’t read the first book, very basically put, it’s about an odd-ball couple (charming) who find their way together. The main thing you need to know is that Don operates within the autistic spectrum, but it’s not a story of aspergers, it’s a story of how complicated life and love can be. Don is delightful in his literal translations of emotions and nuance, often with laugh out loud consequences, and Rosie is not your average girl. So, fast forward to the sequel where they’re married, living in New York and expecting a baby. It’s more of the same with Don’s misunderstandings central to the fore – I didn’t laugh out loud at this one but I did enjoy it enormously. It’s an easy, easy read that is an absolute pleasure.
Believe it or not, I’ve read this twice! I read it the second time because I’d completely forgotten what happened – which says a lot about how much of an impression in made. I didn’t get it the first time and I only got it a fraction more the second time! Basically, a tale of two rather unpleasant people who make each other’s lives very nasty. Amy, the female lead, is sugar sweet on the surface, more or less a psychopath underneath – manipulative, controlling and devious. Nick, on the other hand, the male lead, is careless, thoughtless and full of self pity. They’re neither of them likeble really, although your sympathy does lie more with Nick that with Amy. Anyway, Amy disappears, the police suspect that Nick has killed her. She’s left a trail that leads the police to one conclusion – that’s she’s dead. But she isn’t. I’ll leave it at that but if you want a rather slow read about two deeply nasty and flawed individuals that play a game of emotional and intellectual cat and mouse, this is it.
Yes! This is an absolute joy of a book – dealing with everything you’re likely to come across if you’re aged 50+. It’s witty (I don’t like India Knight’s fictional writing), sensitive, straight talking and practical all in one go. I wrote about this book over on TheBeautyPlus, my site for older women and some of India’s comments caused no end of upset – don’t ever discuss hair in a public arena is my advice. In Your Prime is so much of a celebration of being an older women (there’s even a section on how to get a divorce – handy if you have no idea where to start and you don’t want to spend your next fifty years picking up someone else’s socks) – it’s like having your wisest friend (after wine) talking you through the complexities of tipping across the fifty barrier. Great stuff and a huge recommend if you’re in that age group.
26th August 2014
I don’t often have such a strong reaction to a book, but I got about a quarter of the way through and realised I just couldn’t take the subject matter. It’s gone off to recycling. Anything to do with animal cruelty or experimenatation is so distressing that I literally couldn’t continue. Remember back in the fifties/sixties when it was popular to experiment with chimps living as humans – it was quite a common thing in scientific communities back then? This is the fictional story of a scientific family who conduct such an experiment and the awful devastation that the experience causes. I don’t know what happens, but I can guess. These experiments never ended well – hundreds of chimps ended up not being able to re-integrate into animal life and lounged for decades, abandonded in cages. Primates are super intelligent beings and it’s just shocking and awful that this could ever have happened. The minute I realised that the abandonded ‘sister’ was a chimp I cried and I’m almost there again just writing the review. Avoid, if you are at all sensitive to animal cruelty.
This book was something of a surprise – I picked it up on my supermarket shop without having ever read anything by this author before. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t the story of the modern phenomenon of hoarding. It’s a very complicated story of a fractured family, devastated by one key event. Yet, they’re all being very British and keeping things glossy on the surface, while each individual simmers underneath. I loved the way that it’s a straight story-telling – it has just the right amount of description so that you understand the emotional impact of what happens but it’s pared back so beautifully that you’re never flooded with their angst. I won’t give away the key details but I’d really recommend as a read that stays with you – the mystery that unravels is something that you couldn’t even guess at – and it goes some way to explaining the nature of hoarding, which is interesting in itself.
4th August 2014
I can’t believe I haven’t read this book before. It’s amazing. Stark, realistic and such attention to detail that you’re immersed from page one. If you don’t know the story, it’s a thriller (but so stripped of sensationalism that it doesn’t feel anything like it) centring around a private detective, Jackson Brodie. Four cases are woven into the book and each one is distinguished by the sadness around it – those left behind, if you like. But, it’s not really a sad book – it’s told in such a way that things seem very matter of fact. I can’t give away the ending; it’s so interesting, and for such a serious subject, its a surprisingly easy book to read. One for the holidays.
I couldn’t resist the follow up book to The Wolf of Wall Street. This book is more about how he got caught and the consequences of Jordan Belfort’s financial misdemeanours. Bottom line is that he ends up as a whistleblower on former friends to avoid a long jail sentence. In a lot of ways, Jordan is so charismatic, you end up feeling sorry for him – and even that he shouldn’t go to jail! It’s easy to forget that what he did was abhorrent. Nonetheless, the break up of his marriage, bad choices in further relationships and his children moving to the other side of America, I did end up feeling for him. A bit. The interesting part is the process of incriminating his friends – it took four years for him to conclude the whistleblowing (including wearing wires at dinner with ‘friends’ to trap them) to the satisfaction of the authorities. And then he went to jail.
I really enjoyed this book, not least because there was some guilty pleasure in the fact that it’s all your middle class friends’ traits rolled up into five families. One family dies – and no, I’m not giving anything away with that because it’s made clear at the very beginning. I guess this book sums up the times of banking money where people got rich quickly and lived lavishly in the suburbs of London and charts the fall of the economy and its effects. If that sounds rather dull, the families are anything but – they’re a bit cliched; the stay-at-home wife, the second (younger) wife, the kind GP married to an accountant, private schooling and labradors. While I can’t say I warmed to any of the families in particular (and absolutely loathed one of the male characters), there’s an awful lot about this book that rings true. Everyone knows someone like them. So, it’s a mix of slice of life, mystery and a sad ending, although there is a lot in the book that’s funny. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth slightly – a bit like the financial crash, and that’s why it’s a clever old book.
25th June 2014
I absolutely loved The Wolf of Wall Street – it was a) and easy read, b) and engaging read and c) mindblowing because it’s all true! If you don’t know the story, roughly it’s about Jordan Belford who worked in trading penny shares and rose to stardom in the world of finance (shares) becoming a multi-multi millionaire. The problem was (apart from illegal practices, law breaking and a sex addiction) that he became highly addicted to drugs – any drugs really. In many ways, that’s what made him so fearless. Needless to say he gets caught, taken down and how that happens is in a separate book that I’m going to read as soon as possible. It’s the kind of life that we can’t even imagine – it’s money that we can’t even imagine and a proper, shameful and deliciously salacious story. I watched the film in the middle of reading the book (starring Leonardo di Caprio) and they have slightly different endings.
This is just a crazy tale! You have to accept from the start that you’re entering the realms of fantasy and imagination but it’s one of the most charming books I’ve ever read. It’s sweet and funny with characters so unlikely – yet each with facets so recognisable in real life – that your credulity is stretched. There’s one chapter in the kitchen of a potato farming widow, with the King of Sweden, an atomic bomb and identical twins that’s so far fetched but in the context of the story, it feels rather normal! It’s a feel-good, happy kind of book that I’m so glad I’ve read. I wish I had it still to read actually.
30th April 2014
I’d just finished The Casual Vacancy and very much enjoyed it – JK Rowling’s observations of the human condition are stellar (and I thought she was a bit of a recluse to be honest, so it was unexpectedly observant) – so wanted to straight away try her work as Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo’s Calling is no Casual Vacancy – it’s a little bit like she’s writing in another language – nearly fluent, but not quite. However, I did really enjoy it – Cormoran Strike is a wounded war vet turned Private Detective, investigating the death of a famous young model. The writing feels like JK Rowling followed the Big Ladybird Book of How To Write Mysteries because every cliche is there, but actually, it’s safe ground, you know where you are with it and it’s an interesting enough story to be a great beach read when you really don’t need a hefty tome to bring sand home in.
30th April 2014
To be honest, I’m only posting this as a warning to avoid. I listened to the audio book while I was on holiday and it’s awful! Like, really, really awful. Each chapter deals with a couple of different patients and circumstances and they are almost all, without fail, problems down below. It’s like an audio Embarrassing Bodies. There’s an attempt at humour that just comes across as rather patronising and not funny anyway; I nearly eye-rolled my way off the sun lounger at the hefty clangers. However, it’s fair to say that I did see it though, or rather hear it through (that would be a hilarious rib-tickler in Dr’s Notes, that bit of wit), and it passed the time. And that’s the best I can do!
30th March 2014
What an eye-opener of a book. Melanie Verwoerd, a white South African, started her political career with the ANC – I know things now that I never new about parts of South Africa’s history. An activist and player in the road from apartheid to a democratic South Africa (not easy to be a white MP with the ANC) she ends up as the South African ambassador in Ireland where she meets Gerry Ryan, a highly public and popular celebrity figure. Not having heard of Gerry Ryan made no difference to the book so don’t let that put you off. Without giving the game away – because this is one eye-opening read where many public Irish figures come out shamefully – when Gerry dies, TV station RTE, Gerry’s family and friends and many public figures attempt to wipe any record of Melanie from Gerry’s life despite the fact they had a strong, monogamous relationship for several years. Gerry was still married (although attempting legal separation and ultimately, divorce) and Melanie was excluded from every aspect of the repercussions of his death. However, thanks to the media, she was (and still is) inextricably linked to him and for that reason, lost her job at UNICEF. So, the story is in two parts; the first part focusses on South Africa and Melanie’s fearless boundary breaking in a tricky political arena, the second part is a tale of complete shame, the old boy’s network and how religion and family loyalties turn bitter and toxic. It’s really a must-read. I spent hours afterwards on the internet tracking Melanie’s career and reading up about Gerry Ryan. It’s Melanie’s side of the story, putting to bed mystery and myth about their relationship and Gerry’s state of mind before his death. It’s upset many people all over again because it’s the story that nobody wanted made public.
So far, this has been the most enjoyable books that I’ve read this year. It’s an easy read that flows along so beautifully that you could finish it in one sitting. The basic story is about Don Tillman, whose social skills (it’s hinted that he is within the autism/aspergers spectrum) are somewhat different to everyone else’s. Don is lecturer in genetics at a university in University in Melbourne and based on research it’s come to his attention that men live longer if they’re married. So obviously, he regards marriage as an optimum situation and compiles a form for prospective ‘material’ to fill. Don’s one and only friend introduces him to Rosie – definitely not marriage material; she fails the form on just about every single level – and guess what happens! The aspergers element amplifies all the conventions around dating and strips them back to their absurdities – I could safely say that the author never makes fun of the condition and opens our eyes to what happens when you take away the frills and apply analysis and statistics to social rules. It doesn’t work, but kinda does…
22nd January 2014
I loved this book.. it was such a page turner and Aifric Campbell has a way of bringing you in from the get-go so you immediately identify with the main character, Geri. Bare bones of the story is city trader Geri, who has reached burn-out. She’s working in a world that is traditionally male dominated, with all the things that make it difficult to work in that environment; she copes by becoming one of the lads, with drinking, drugs and long, long hours. Things come to a climax when a Hong Kong client is more demanding than he should be, and at the same time the office nerd turns nasty – or desperate, depending upon how you look at it. This tale totally grips – there’s a lot of detail in the writing and softer, quieter narratives in the background about life, humans and endurance. Basically, it’s the story of how far you have to go down sometimes in order to be able to get back up. I’d recommend in a heartbeat.
2nd January 2014
Oh, it’s so long since I did any book reviews but I’ve been reading relentlessly so I’ll just quickly rush through a selection of what I’ve read recently.
This is one moody book! It’s a good old fashioned detective drama spiced up with private investigator (troubled, of course) David Raker. Take in Las Vegas, Nazis and English country villages, a missing family and about a million twists (that don’t end well, be warned) and it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. I genuinely enjoyed reading this, spend a few nights into the small hours staying up with it and to be honest, the end was a little bit rushed. It relies on being unconscious too often to explain away the unexplainable. I’m nit-picking really and I would definitely go for anything by Tim Weaver again and thoroughly recommend if you like a fast paced and atmospheric read.
Another weird book – and I sort of feel I never really understood it properly. Basic outline is a film crew (including Ray Bhullar, the narrator) arrive at an Indian village with a difference to make a film. The village is to all intents and purposes an open prison; people who have killed and committed awful crimes are allowed to live there with their families and it runs like a normal village. However, undercurrents are everywhere and while the open prison is touted as a utopian model of prison, in reality, it’s oppressive and secretive. It’s interesting and worth a lazy read because you can pick it up and put it down.. which sort of means it doesn’t grip but more flows along.
This is a very sweet book; sometimes that’s all a book needs to be to be the perfect pre-sleep companion. I know I read this while the weather was absolutely awful and the wind was whistling outside and I felt really cosy and happy tucked up in bed with The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. It’s the second book by Deborah Rodriguez; her first was The Kabul Beauty School which is a first hand account of a secret beauty salon and training school run by DR in Kabul. I absolutely loved that – this book though is fictional and although it addresses real issues faced by natives and expats living in a troubled country, it was a little syrupy. However, I’d recommend The Kabul Beauty School as a starting place before this one. Easy, lovely reads, both.
Set in Australia, you can guess the plot by the title – a husband with a secret. Only, it’s a big one and over the years has lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and unhappiness that have become almost bigger than the actual secret itself. There are some funny moments (Tupperware sales) and some intensely poignant ones – I can’t really tell you what the secret is otherwise it will spoil everything. It’s a sad situation, made better by some really tight writing and humane observations. Needless to say, the sins of the husband are wreaked upon the wife, the family and just about everyone else even vaguely involved and a good example of the ripple effect.
Even though she’s a qualified doctor (a British muslim woman, previously living in the US), when Qanta moves to Saudi she has to observe Saudi laws. As a westernised muslim, this is both frustrating, shocking and terribly binding, but while I can’t say this book has a lot to recommend it, surprisingly the experience took her much closer to her religion and when Qanta makes her Hajj, it is a very moving read – it’s a completely immersive experience for her that makes you wish you could find your soul in the same way. Otherwise, it’s oppressive to a western eye, frustrating in that she doesn’t really challenge anything, and it’s more her route to acceptance of that way of life rather than any great revelation or rebellion. I would have liked to know more about the inner workings of a Saudi hospital (all life comes to hospitals) but there is very little and the book focusses so much on a personal journey that if you don’t connect with Qanta, it’s a bit disappointing.
I loved, loved, loved this book about Francophone Africa and Peter Biddlecombe’s journey through it. He travels through Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Kinshasa, Bamako.. so many French speaking African countries… so it’s rather an education. The author has a great observational eye and tells many funny stories without denigrating cultures and traditions; merely finding them curious or odd to a Western eye. A lot of the book is concerned with politics and it’s truly eye-opening – especially when it comes to the oil trade which large parts of Africa rely on. Needless to say there is no even distribution of profits; the rich are rich and the poor are dirt poor. If you are interested in other countries and cultures I’d really highly recommend this – you can put it down and pick it up between other books but it’s always entertaining and always educational. I’ve picked up some facts and a better knowledge of Africa as a result.
20th October 2013
This is pretty much a book about how families aren’t perfect. Set in the 1976 heatwave, the Riordan family just tootle along with their lives – two grown up daughters and a son hover in the background initially – until Robert, the father, disappears. What seemed like an average, everyday life turns into – well, an average, everyday family, warts and all. The disappearance of Robert brings out all those things a mother never wants to realise about their children – that they’re selfish, consider their ageing parents a burden, or that they’re so far from what her expectations were that the subject doesn’t bear close scrutiny. So, seemingly fine on the surface, the Riordan family coming together to find their father brings it all out in the open. I liked this book for its normality and its detailed look at how parents always want to see the best in their children while children pretty much focus on the worst of their parents. It’s HERE.
I spent weeks on this book.. it’s written in such intricate detail and not normally the kind of book I can stick with, but it’s a little bit addictive once you get stuck in. The story is one of a family, living on an out-of-town estate in Ireland that was built with many promises – none of which are kept – that was supposed to become a community and never did. The family are killed and only the mother survives. With so few central characters and only ever very limited options on who could have committed the crime, the answer should be obvious, and yet, it isn’t. It’s written from the slant of the detective, Kennedy, who has complications in the form of a mentally ill sister, and I guess you could categorise this as a police procedural, except it’s more because the story telling is so detailed and intense that you get totally pulled in even though it is quite an effort to read. This is definitely one for cosy afternoons by the fire with no distractions. It’s HERE.
After Broken Harbour I really needed something light and after initially not liking this book, it turned into a slightly Sex And The City kinda thing with a lot of funny, wry and dry observations. Bottom line of the story is about Lucy (husband wealthy, loses wealth, family ends up in New York apartment) and her integration into New York life but more from a school mom/what shall I do with my life/there must be more to it than this perspective. Several female characters all have their own stories; Lucy is the central character that weaves them all together – it’s really clever and more than chic-lit and while it is the kind of book I’d like to write, I know I might as well not bother because the author, Anne-Marie Casey has done such a good job of capturing the absurd and the angst of women’s lives, its hard to beat. If I had to liken the style to anything, I’d definitely say Candace Bushnell. It’s HERE.
18th August 2013
This is my first introduction to an India Knight book – on the back there were various ‘hilarious’, ‘laughed til I cried’ type recommendations so I really thought I was in for some fun. Wrong. Actually I didn’t *lol* once – although I do keep quoting from her list of things that happen to women over a certain age (i.e. you can’t get up from a chair without groaning – true dat) which kind of made me smile. Otherwise, the thin old plot is padded out with Knight ramblings which I guess might have been funny at thought stage but lost something by being committed to paper.
The vague story is of Clara, aged 46, making a dreadful drama about having a tiny bit of Botox. Her friend Gabby (who has had full-on work) comes to stay and the result is, well, I’m not sure about the result. One woman trying to look far younger than she is and the other trying to like her looks as they are. There’s a little bit of an anti-botox slant – as though women who have ‘work’ are somehow less than those who submit to the ageing process. In India’s book, Clara manages to learn to love her looks but then as fantasy goes, she has a love interest, exciting family and an income that’s never fully explained. Don’t go lecturing with fantasy, I would say. I don’t know – it just felt like one big India wit showcase and that’s an acquired taste by anyone’s standards. If you’re an India Knight fan, you’ll recognise her style – she can be excessively amusing and wry – but it’s not as sharp or as relevant as I’d hoped. It’s gone off to recycling already.
8th August 2013
I absolutely loved reading this book by ex editor of Vogue Australia, Kirstie Clemments. It’s such a good insight into the world that only fashion editors inhabit and it’s pretty straight talking. It’s not quite as salacious as I would have liked although we aren’t spared the detail of stupendous budgets lavished on fashion and beauty launches which is an eye opener. In particular, the three day Elizabeth Arden spectacular which was beyond what even the editors had seen before to herald the launch of a product that was then canned.. it never actually launched. It’s rather matter-of-fact in the telling which I liked – easy to put down and pick up again without losing track of what’s happened. The only weird thing I thought was that she barely references her children .. it’s like, ‘oh, and then I had twins’.. and they are literally never mentioned again! The invisible twins. At the end, I felt really sad for Kirstie – top brass in publishing are absolutely ruthless and while we only have her account of it she seemed to be doing such a good job in understanding the mercurial nature of fashion. I ended up hoping she found a like role elsewhere and that the fat cats wet themselves with fear when they discovered she was writing this book!
21st July 2013
Ultimately, I’d have to say I haven’t been doing very well with books lately. I loved the Devil Wears Prada but this is SO far away from the original wit and humour of the first book that I stopped caring at about Page 60 what happened and sent it to Oxfam. As soon as I read that the new magazine being started by Andy, ten years on from Runway magazine, is a bridal magazine called The Plunge, I called time. The Plunge.. honestly. It’s rubbish; achingly bad so I hope it’s happy on an Oxfam shelf where it deserves to languish forever.
21st July 2013
This book by David Sedaris is a compilation of ‘slice of life’ observations. Sedaris is dry, witty and sometimes really, really funny – but only sometimes. I think the stretch is too far on the flight of fancy and you’d need to be a Sedaris fan in the first place to enjoy this a lot. While the subject matter sounds ripe for humour – such as his first colonoscopy – it’s just free reign for a very, very long way around any given topic and his thoughts thereon. I’ve enjoyed dipping in and out, but not as much as I thought I would.
21st July 2013
God knows why I picked this up – I gave up before the end because while the subject is fascinating, the way its told is not. The book examines the theories of hysteria in 19th century Paris where the Sapetriere Hospital became a centre of excellence in studying ‘hysteria’ in women. As far as psychiatric history goes, it’s well researched but, despite their being all kinds of subterfuge, nobody really comes to life. Interestingly, ‘hysterics’ were sometimes anything but… more women with nowhere else to go who stayed at the hospital to be ‘case-studies’ and could become hysterical to order. You’d have to be very, very interested in the subject matter to stay the course on this one.
21st July 2013
I loved the intricacies of this book set in the mid eighties and the minute detail under which a family are scrutinized. Middle-aged Howard and Kathryn’s son is killed; while Kathryn has accepted her son exactly as he is (gay), Howard’s acceptance only comes once Robert has died. If only the clock could turn back. It’s a sad book about ordinary lives that actually leaves something with you – the message that accepting people as they are is one of the single most important things you can ever do. I’m glad to have read it.
21st July 2013
Well, it would be fair to say that I hated this – I think I can’t stretch to fantasy at this level – it’s just a leap too far for me. If you haven’t read it, the basic story is fast forward to the future and the annual Hunger Games where participants have to fight for their lives. It’s like X-Factor but to the death. There were little bits that tugged at me, such as the crippled boy who wasn’t ever going to stand a chance and I’m afraid I skipped the entire middle bit where the games to place and went to the end where, as pretty much expected, the main characters in the story had survived. Unless you love this genre, it’s kind of depressing.
9th June 2013
The Dinner. Few words for this other than the cover title calls it ‘gripping’ and ‘engrossing’ and A N Wilson calls it ‘funny’. It is none of those things. Set around a family secret the entire book is set through the three courses of a dinner attended by two brothers and their wives. It’s self-indulgent – it feels like an attempt at grown-up writing that doesn’t work somehow – too wordy, too minute in detail and pretty hard going. I haven’t finished it and I’m not going to either, and I NEVER give up! It’s HERE.
9th June 2013
I’m so not a fan of David Walliams but nonetheless I quite enjoyed his writing.. it’s really easy to read. In fact, I like him better for having read the book. There’s nothing much to tell unless I give the whole lot away but it charts his life from boyhood to manhood really – I expect there will be another one. The one thing that really struck me is how emotional he is – he made a rubbish boyfriend (as he is the first to confess) because he never did quite figure out how not to be needy. He seems to set out to ‘save’ the women he goes out with and of course, can’t stay the course and ends up feeling a failure. The book doesn’t take us up to present day and his now a new father and married, so if he wrote another charting how he ended up settled, I’d read it. His relationship with Matt Lucas is complex; despite saying how much he supports Matt he is quite quick to throw a back handed compliment whenever possible. It’s HERE.
9th June 2013
Long time cycle race competitor Tyler Hamilton dishes the dirt on what goes on behind the scenes. Actually, as a fan of the Tour de France which I watch religiously every year, I will never see it in the same light again. While The Secret Race is Tyler’s story (he readily admits to doping), a lot of it focusses around Lance Armstrong. You don’t really need to be a cycling or sports fan to find this riveting; it’s pretty much about what it takes to be a high level competitor and from Tyler’s story, it seems almost impossible to even be a contender without some chemical assistance. In turn, you have to look at the race as it is now – any race in fact – and wonder. Incredibly thought provoking and an eye-opener. It’s HERE.
9th June 2013
This is a joy of a book and a winner at the Costa 2011 Book Awards. It’s set in Lagos, Nigeria and tells the story of Blessing, a young girl whose fortunes change when her father abandons her mother. Not only does it reflect just how vulnerable women are in other cultures, but their move (without their father) back to the Nigerian countryside from the relative affluence of Lagos, but also touches on female genital mutilation. While that sounds on the heavy side, it’s dealt with as part of culture reformation and in a very gentle way. Blessing’s brother Ezikiel becomes involved in political conflict, her grandfather takes a new wife – some of this is very funny (especially Celestine, the new wife), some very serious and a lot of it is about the complexities of growing up, no matter where you are in the world. I enjoyed it from start to finish. It’s HERE.
Okay, so The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnson is set in 1677 Morocco. Historically, it’s beautifully researched, but I can’t say I loved the story of a slave, Nus Nus and a captured English woman who turns out to be the illegitimate daughter of Charles II. You definitely get a sense of the atmosphere of living inside the walled confines of a Sultan’s court in those times; and the dreadful casualness with which life can end and begin. But, while Nus Nus is endearing and Sultan Ismail is a horrifying tyrant that you can really believe existed, the story is so far fetched that I ended up questioning everything and therefore not really enjoying it. Apparently the characters are based on historical fact, in as far as it is possible to ascertain, and since Ismail had one of the bloodiest reigns of any Moroccan sultan prepare yourself for gore galore. One for the beach I think and then straight back to the Oxfam shop giving blessings for not having been born in 1677 anywhere near Morocco.
I nearly hated myself for even getting half way through this book. In fact, I didn’t even get to the very end – it was so predictable and I’d stopped even caring what happened to the two sisters Eva and Patty. I don’t even know why I didn’t give it up sooner. Basically the story is of sisters who have a complicated relationship based on the early death of their mother. One sister runs off with the other’s husband, there’s an adoption theme and ultimately a very, very mundane story of finding independence. Eva runs a dress shop and designs clothes that somewhat unbelievably become a sensation.. she never has a moment’s worry for finances (a past career as a successful model means she has endless money it seems).. she’s one of the most dull characters I’ve ever come across in a book and if I met her in real life, I’d run for the hills. I’d also run from Patty, the ultimate martyr sister. They’re both so over-wrought and everything is over-thought. If my sister and I behaved like them, I’d absolutely understand if we had not a friend in the world. One to avoid.
You know when you open a book and you are hooked from the first paragraph? Well, this is what happens here! Lisa See writes almost as you imagine she might speak so you really feel she is telling you the story of Pearl and May who first appear in See’s Shanghai Girls. It’s a continuation of the Shanghai Girls story and I wish I’d known that before I started it because I would have read Shanghai Girls first. But, the bottom line is that two sisters, exiles from China, share a daughter (I won’t give away the plot), Joy. She runs off to China, imagining it to be the place where she belongs. However, it’s 1957 – Chairman Mao is implementing crazy regimes, particularly in rural China. It’s a matter of factual history that these plans – such as close grain planting – failed spectacularly and millions starved.. often to death. Dreams of Joy follows the path of Pearl’s attempt to rescue Joy and bring her back to America. There are two love stories intertwined, plus a baby, so this beautifully written book has something for everyone. It’s not mawkish, it’s historically accurate and intricately researched. I couldn’t put it down.
I’ve followed Fleet Street Fox on Twitter for a couple of years now – she’s the sort of straight talking person that you really wouldn’t mess with I think! She’s always got an angle and a viewpoint and puts the news into perspective – she makes you think about things and I’d pretty much rather read what she has to say than read any newspaper. Once you start to like and understand a person’s tone, everything she reports on seems more relevant – she’s 100% a bullshit free zone (check out her website HERE) with a real clarity of voice. So, I was very excited for her book – I’ve never worked in a newsroom, tabliod or otherwise and wanted to find out the bottom line. So, I was a bit surprised when it turned out that the book is more about her divorce than any newsroom antics. Initally, I felt it wasn’t what I signed up for when I bought the book.. but I didn’t read the back or any reviews, so I guess, buyer beware! It was my assumption. So, Diary of A Fleet Street Fox turned out to be quite an emotional book, written in such a way that you’re half laughing and half feeling desperately sorry for her. She calls her husband Twatface and his new girlfriend Fatty the entire way through, so much that Twatface also ends up calling his own new girlfriend Fatty. Tabloid journos get a bad rap but one of the most touching things about the book is how they pretty much all supported FSF in their own (bullish) way. Weirdly, she lives really near me so many of the locations are very familiar. It’s the story of a very shitty divorce, a very shitty thing happening to someone who didn’t really deserve it but it’s also a written record of someone who has to take apart the relationship they thought they had and get to grips with what they really had. I won’t spoil the ending, but you do have to wonder what she ever saw in Twatface in the first place – it’s proof that while FSF might be bullshit free she certainly didn’t spot a great deal of Twatface’s bullshittery.
As you can see, I’ve taken a break from book reviews for a while, not least because when I moved my blog to WordPress half the reviews got lost and all the pictures went. The other reason is that I’ve been working my way through the entire Inspector Montalbano books and have been happily lost in Sicily for many weeks! However, I have read a few other books in-between, so here goes!
Most recently finished (last night, in fact) is Elizabeth J Haynes Human Remains. It’s somewhat different to her previous two books, Revenge of the Tide and Into The Darkest Corner and focusses on a police analyst’s work in discovering the cause of many unexplained deaths. Without giving away the plot, it’s an investigation in desperation and captures a feeling of hopelessness that some people feel – too weary and defeated to carry on living, they find a way to die that is neither frightening or painful and it does leave you with a lot of questions about choices in death. Of course, there is someone at the core of these deaths who is so complex and disturbing that it is actually scary – although he masturbates FAR too much! I’m not coy, and I can see why his habits are integral to the book, but I felt that bit was an over-share. It is definitely worth a read if you like a psychological drama; I haven’t read anything like it before so can’t knock it for originality. My final point is, and not just for this book, is that if you do a bit of skim-reading, which I do, it’s a bit misleading when the end of the book is bulked up by author interviews – you think you still have a way to go to the end (hence the skim) and then suddenly it’s over and you haven’t concentrated in the same way you would if you know its the final pages. It’s just annoying. You can find it HERE
I absolutely loved this memoir from Grace Coddington, Creative Director of US Vogue. She’s every inch as wonderful as you might hope and the book charts her childhood in Wales through her career as a model in 1960’s London and her journey to her current position. It’s very clearly written, so you could, if you had an afternoon by the fire to spare, finish it in one go. It’s not taxing, just delightful, funny and entertaining. You can find it HERE.
The Tent, The Bucket and Me is written by comedienne, Emma Kennedy. In short, it’s the true story of her disasterous family holidays in the seventies with ever optimistic parents determined to go camping *abroad* come what may. It’s quite simply one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and I was laughing out loud many times. If ever there was a family who should stay at home, it is the Kennedys, but despite one catastrophe after another, they keep on trying. It’s warm, funny and will resonate with anyone who has ever been on a family camping holiday. Brilliant.
I’ve also read I Left My Tent In San Francisco by Emma Kennedy: she and a friend set off for an American adventure with a frighteningly unrealistic amount of spending money. They’re about at hopeless as it is possible to be and it was in the 80’s when few people had mobile phones so they are pretty well left to fend for themselves. They get crappy jobs with crappy pay, can barely feed themselves and end up in so many inappropriate situations I barely know where to begin… a porn mogul’s car, for a start! Even though Emma and her friend are teenagers, it’s more like two nine year olds trying to scrabble through a road trip because they’re just so innocent. Really funny and eye-brow raising, and a very good commentary on how teen life differed so much then to teen life today. It isn’t as laugh-out-loud as The Tent, so my advice is to read it first and then Tent second. Fab holiday reading.
It’s not often that I drop everything and spend an entire day reading a book, but that’s pretty much what I did yesterday with Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner. Could not put it down. To begin, my sister gave me Elizabeth Haynes’ Revenge Of The Tides; the story of Genevieve, an ex-lap dancer now living her dream of buying and renovating a barge boat. During her time dancing (she also had a respectable day job) she comes across some really nasty characters in a seedy, drug infested world. By the time she leaves, she’s seen too much and her past catches up on her. The way that Elizabeth Haynes writes is so engaging that you’re in it before you know it and it is the kind of book that keeps you awake til the small hours because you can’t close the pages. There’s a love story weaving in and out which gives it an extra twist but above all, the author creates a sense of normality that jars tautly when interupted. So, as soon as I’d finished Revenge of the Tides, EH’s second book, I bought Into The Darkest Corner.
It’s a familiar story; a twisted, violent and super controlling man finds beautiful, gregarious and intelligent woman and turns her into a physical and mental wreck. Of course he’s good-looking, of course he tells her he loves her and of course he wants to marry her.. but Lee has such a perverse relationship with love that it’s all about abuse to him. He’s clever, seamless and worse, a working undercover policeman. Cathy has a breakdown, becomes emotionally crippled with severe OCD, but again there is a love story woven into the book and somehow she manages to begin a healing process. Until Lee gets out of prison and starts again. I’ll leave it there but I’d strongly suggest you buy both books because once you’ve read one, you won’t be able to stop! Despite the love aspect, they’re genuinly smartly written, gripping and gritty. Annoyingly, Elizabeth Haynes has only written two books. Whatever you are doing Ms Haynes, could you stop it immediately and go write some more.
Juliane Keopcke’s extraordinary true story of being the only survivor of plane crash in Peru at the age of 17 is told in the most un-dramatic way in When I Fell From The Sky, given the super-dramatic events. This probably isn’t the book to start on the plane if you’re going on holiday, but it might be reassuring for potential readers that she and her mother took a plane out of desperation that they did not know was the last surviving plane from a fleet of three (the other two had already crashed at other times), and had been cobbled together from parts, more or less. So, very ususual circumstances, and Juliane literally fell from the air to the ground – and survived. She has very little memory of the actual fall.. but it is thought she survived because she was still in her seat and that trees slowed her fall. However, her journey to find help is even more strange; if not for the fact that her parents had brought her up on an environmental research station in the Peruvian jungle, she would never have had the skills to survive. But, survive she did, and now as an adult (this happened in the 1970’s) she tells her story for the very first time. It’s definitely worth a read, and rather than being a terrifying tale, because of Juliane’s very understated tone, it reads as a factual telling with no embellishments. I really enjoyed it.. and given that it is such a hard subject to tackle, have come out without thinking I’m going down with the next plane!
When I started reading Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomon, I had the image of David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in my head. It’s a bitter-sweet tale, more bitter than sweet as it turns out, about a newly arrived Jewish German refugee and his wife arriving in England. As much as his wife, Sadie, wants to remember her culture and traditions, Jack wants to forget and become the perfect English gentleman. After becoming a sucessful carpet manufacturer in the East End of London, Jack turns his attentions to creating a golf course (because none of the golf courses want Jewish members). While it is a salutory reminder of just how dreadfully racist Britain was (and still is to a large degree), the story of building the course becomes a little bit tedious. While Jack and Sadie both find an acceptance of sorts in the little village they move to it’s still a sad story of ambition crushed and the sorry, sordid way that humankind can still ostracise others for the slightest point of difference. It’s kind of a heart-breaker because despite the light and beautifully flowing writing, and the cop-out ending where Jack is ‘happy’, the main thing I take is just how cruel others can be. The ‘list’ from the title is taken from a genuine advice leaflet given to German refugees on arrival in England. Initially, Jack follows the leaflet to the letter, adding in his observations and further guidance should he ever compile his own (better) list, but this compilation of clever observation about the English peters out half way through the book, and I’d like to have seen more.
I’m not sure how it happened but I managed to be reading two books with a jungle theme at once.
Firstly Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder which is a must-read, and focuses on the research of one woman into a tribe whose women are able to carry on having children until they are old women. Naturally, a drug company has seen the potential for late-to-the-party women and fund the research. When they send someone to investigate why the research is taking such a long time, he dies in strange circumstances. So, scientist, Marina is sent to find out more. And, boy does she discover more. I’ll spoil the story if I say any more, other than this is such a clever story that weaves and twists in the heat of the Amazon with such a sad sting in the tail at the end that leaves you open-mouthed.. how could they? It is very well worth reading if only to force you to make up your own happy ending long after the book has finished.
The other jungle themed book is The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx. While you can immediately get to know Anne Patchett’s characters, it’s far more difficult with the Docx characters. They’re not even very interesting so it’s hard to care what they do. He is good at creating atmosphere and tension, but without being able to empathise with the main character, Dr Forle, it was hard to care what happened. In the end, I didn’t and it still lies unfinished. Renegade soldiers, torture and murder.. it has it all but is still rather empty.
This is a real page turner. To cut to the chase, the main character, Christine, has lost her memory… she remembers only a day at a time and once she wakes the following day, everything from the previous day is gone so she has to re-learn. Enter a psychiatrist, who rings her every day to remind her she has a diary (she doesn’t ever remember him, so he has to re-explain everything each time). By recording what she learns about herself and her life in any given day, she reads it each morning to build a picture of herself. Gradually, she starts to instinctively know she has a journal to keep. It’s a psychological drama and immaculately presented (except for how the psychiatrist contacts her on weekends without her husband finding out.. that is never really explained) and I wanted to just keep on reading and reading. The construction is so clever and finely detailed but the book never becomes boring, although given its ‘Groundhog Day’ nature you’d think it might. Exceptionally clever, but utterly readable, this is a very strong recommend from me.
Well, it’s taken me a couple of weeks to wade through the Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.. I absolutely loved them, and for anyone who has struggled with those first deathly dull 100 pages of Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and wondered what the heck the fuss is about, see the film and then pick up the subsequent books. I am kind of gutted that there will never be any more (the author died shortly before their publication).
Okay, it has finally happened.. I’ve got embroiled in the Millenium Trilogy. I just could not get started on the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and then I saw the film and loved it. So, I’m now at the beginning of the third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. There’s no point in reviewing them because they’re so well read and known. And I’m totally, totally hooked.
I started off hating this book.. it just felt really patronizing and another stick to beat British women with.. i.e. why aren’t we more like French women? Well, I’ve been to lots of places in France and I’d have to say that it is only really in Paris that you see the sort of sophisticated and elegant women that this book would have us aspire to be. However, as I went on, I really started to like the author, Helena Frith Powell and she does some very rigourous research that in my view is above and beyond the call of duty. The French have a system post child-birth and that’s all I’m saying. Suddenly some of the things she was saying started to make sense. French women spend a fortune on lingerie and take as much pride in their undergarments as they do with their outer wear. We should do this. I live in fear of being run over and my gloomy grey bra exposed for all the ambulance crew to see. I also like the attitude to exercise; Helena says that French women don’t really go to the gym but use every opportunity to move about.. so walking instead of taking the bus, for example, but it is seamed into their daily psyche which might also account for the fact that they seem to stay slimmer for longer. In the end, I found myself saying, ‘yes, why don’t we do this?’ and it does seem that French women take more care of themselves – and crucially, allow more time to do it. I don’t think, judging from the book, you find many French women plastered on the street with blue legs in the middle of January..and that has to be good, right? However, I still maintain that in the parts of France I’ve been to, I can’t say I really noticed a higher level of womanity! There are sophisticated, intelligent and well groomed women all over the world and not just in France. The book is an entertaining read but you’ll probably only need an afternoon (and a glass of wine, maybe!).
Jeez, if you want a miserable book, it’s right here. But, and it is a big but, Margaret Drabble has a genius for understanding human nature and picking away at the scabs we all have. The detail of emotion is stunning. The book covers three generations of women; the grandmother is old, frail and really at the end of her life, the mother is torn between not being like her own mother (but unable to help herself in many ways) but disappointed that she isn’t appreciated more, and the daughter is a typical selfish teenager who is absolutely disgusted to find frailty in her own mother and even more so in her grandmother who she can’t find any connections with. It’s the kind of thing that eventually will come to us all; difficult daughters, failing parents and the hideous guilt that hangs between. It’s a properly gloomy read but an absolutely phenomenal piece of writing.
It’s the best possible start to discovering a new author when mid-way through the book you realise you actually can’t wait to read the next thing they’ve written. Karen Wheeler is an ex-fashion and beauty editor (but still currently a journalist as well as an author) who upped sticks from London a few years ago to live in rural France. The books document her (true) journey from YSL to DIY as she renovates her tiny house, acquires a dog, makes friends and finds love. The tone of writing is instantly engaging; from page one you are already on-side and racing through the chapters. However, while her journey is chaotic and funny, it does carry deep messages about how life rarely goes to plan and finding joy in unusual places is no accident; you really have to open your own eyes to how you are blessed.
It’s rare to find writing that you don’t feel you have to acclimatise to but can settle to from the get-go and for this reason, I suggest you buy the lot because once you’ve read one, you will want to read them all. They’re the perfect holiday read to while away the hours under a sun-umbrella. I might also add that I left a comment on Karen’s blog about how much I was enjoying the third book, Tout Soul, and she emailed me to say thank you, which proves she is as endearing in real life as she is in her books. There is a Tout 4 in the making as I write this due for publication next year which is about a year too far away, in my view.
Find the books here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Toute-Allure-Falling-Rural-France/dp/1849530661/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333284266&sr=1-1 and Karen’s blog here: http://www.toutsweet.net/
As a regular walker in a local park, I hate walking there at weekends. Why? Runners. They’re all about them and their run. So, no chance they’ll move off the line they’re running; it’s down to everyone else to leap out of the way and that, quite frankly, is extremely annoying. I have two small dogs, and it would quite literally just take one runner stomping on their back to break it.
It’s worse if you encounter a group; they’re quite happy to take up the entire pathway leaving any other people trying to enjoy walking having to move onto grass or just out of the way altogether. And, if, god forbid, one of my dogs doesn’t move (because you can’t always hear runners creeping up behind you) they’re all curses because they’ve had to swerve. Why runners can’t run on a track and avoid all these hurdles, I’m not really sure, because they get annoyed as hell if, in a public space, other people get in their way.. which seems incredibly unreasonable.
But being continually annoyed by runners isn’t something that can carry on. They’re not going anywhere, and neither am I. So I bought this book in the hopes of getting into the running head space and trying to understand more about the sport. Funnily enough, it has made me far more interested in running – I don’t want to do it, I’ll quickly add – but I can now look at the way people run, their running styles, their shoes and kit, and kind of understand what they’re trying to achieve.
This book is quite an eye opener: it explains why humans were born to run (hunting prey), why barefoot running is preferable (very few running injuries occurred before Nike and similar were born) and more excitingly, explores the sport of ultra-running.. or extreme running. Focussing on a tribe from North America, the Tarahumara, known for their ability to run incredible distances remarkably easily. Living alongside them is a man known as Caballo Blanco, formerly a bare knuckle fighter, who adopts their traditions and learns to run. Cutting a very long story short, he starts pitting the Tarahumara against runners from other countries in endurance testing ultra-runs of 50k plus. (the Tarahumara are well up for this in case you’re wondering!) through deserts, mountains and non-traditional running terrains. Oh, and in extreme heat with no easy access to water.
Without reading this book, I’d never have had any clue about the hotly debated topic of ultra-running, and barefoot versus trainer running. Or that before Nike, there were runners managing times that simply aren’t achievable any more, and they did it with no special shoes, no special training and no warm ups, meaning that when it was all simple and free of so called science, achievements were greater. I’d also never have known that humans are greatly helped to run by a particular ligament in the neck that helps to keep their balance.. pigs for example, don’t have it. It’s also made me a little bit scornful of the runners in the park hammering their feet down; running, according to Born To Run, should be light and feel weightless and done with a straight back and long strides. Same too for those runners who ‘shuffle’ their feet in short strides; basically they might as well be walking quickly rather than running. It’s definitely worth a read if you are remotely interested in running, or you’ve ever wondered what the draw is to participate in the sport.
I can’t say it’s made me happier about runners rampaging through the park hell bent on not moving off their line, no matter how inconvenient it is to anyone else. But, at least I’m a little closer to accepting why they’re so single minded. See, I didn’t say selfish.. that’s definitely progress.
This is one of the sweetest books I have read in a long time. It deals, unbelievably, with the Rwandan atrocities by weaving experiences into a story about a woman who bakes party cakes. It is the gentlest of books that doesn’t depart from its intent to ensure that what happened in Rwanda is never forgotten and that we are in no doubt that the legacy from that war is scarring and long-lasting, but the tale is told so cleverly and beautifully that it becomes less about the tearing apart of a country and more about coming together. A truly lovely read.
This is easily one of the most challenging books I have ever read. Non-fiction, it charts the tale of Aayan’s life as a Muslim who turns her back on her religion, and in fact, becomes anti-Muslim. It has to be said, her experiences as a Somali Muslim were not good; she eventually escaped to the Netherlands as a refugee, entirely alone, and after being educated and adapting to western life, she enters the political arena. From the Netherlands, she moves to America, where she still to this day needs 24 hour protection from extremists. It’s challenging because while in the UK we are taught tolerance, if we are really honest, Muslim extremism scares the crap out of us. According to Aayan we have every reason to feel afraid. However, I felt that it didn’t really deal with multi-culturalism terribly well; in London, I feel we can live side by side with other cultures with tolerance and acceptance quite well (obviously a sweeping generalisation but I don’t have enough experience to be any other) and in many ways this book is disruptive to what status quo we do have. However, the concept of global Muslimism is something I’ve never had to think about before and it is indeed very thought provoking. I can’t really come to any conclusions but will continue to take people of any race and creed as I find them. It seems pretty dangerous to do otherwise. Ultimately, what Aayan does is fight for the rights of Muslim women, not to be held hostage in their own homes, not to be circumcised, not to be sold to men three times their age and of course, in communities where this does happen, it is right that there is a voice to speak out. But you cannot tar all people with the same brush and I felt uncomfortable that this is what she was doing. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in other cultures but it isn’t an easy read for the conscience.
This is a really quirky read about an unconventional family; the parents are ‘performance artists’ who include their young children in creating performance art. Generally this means creating mayhem in supermarkets, streets and a particular favourite, shopping malls. Given that it is fiction, the writing is really clever at making you feel that discomfort when something goes wrong; and that’s their aim, to put people in awkward situations and watch the reaction. Obviously as the children get older, they no longer want to take part in these organised incidents, and when their parents disappear, they just know that it’s all part of a performance. While the police and authorities take the Fangs’ disappearance seriously, the children don’t but still embark on finding them. They do find them, living the ultimate in performance art, but rather than clever and beguiling, it’s all rather sad. It’s a story of gradually seeing your parents as people, rather than just your mum and dad and how you aren’t ever responsible for what two adults do. I enjoyed this book a lot.
If ever there was a book to convince me once and for all that I never want to climb a mountain, this is it. It’s a collection of 15 true tales of survival from mountaineers; from back in the 70’s and earlier to present day. What’s interesting is that nobody has to climb a mountain, and the mentality of those that do is something I really can’t relate to at all. There aren’t any health benefits whatsoever; in fact, quite the opposite. Given that it’s entirely possible that even if you make it down a mountain alive, you may well have lost your fingers, toes or even your nose just for the sake of going up to come down is madness. These tales are very chilling; I think many would say a testament to human endurance but in fact, I would say a testament to idiocy. I don’t think any benefit to science, nature or anything else has come of one person’s desire to reach a summit, and apart from giving work to Sherpas, it’s one of the most selfish things to do. My entire view across the book was, why? Why would anyone climb a mountain in the most hostile of weather conditions, carve themselves a tiny nook in a sheer face to sleep in and then try and pile three men barely alive into an excuse of a tent on it? This book left me entirely stumped and thinking the people that do it need to find something more productive to do.
This book had good reviews on Amazon, but oh my god.. I found it so tedious. I’ve read plenty of other Joe Simpson books about mountain climbing.. he wrote Touching The Void which is one of my all time favourite reads, but this is just a long, long introspective, self indulgent non-story. He does however, raise the politics of Tibet and China and of course the plight of the Tibetans but somehow manages to make even that worthy subject all about him. I’d like to think that instead of just moaning about how guilty he feels about climbing in Tibet he might get off his backside and actively do something about it.
I really enjoyed this book; my interest in North Korea is very much piqued but in fact, I was more interested in Tan Wee Chen’s accounts of other places such as the former Yugoslavia and the Sudan more. It’s really a series of travel essays which is great for the bed-time reader who needs a natural break in writing before being able to actually put their book down! Tan Wee Chen is very much a travel addict and likes to write up his travels; the more challenging the country the better. He spends a little bit too much time on the history of the countries as an intro and personally, I think the book would have been better focussing on the travel experiences, but if you don’t know the history of the Balkans for example, it’s a good summary. The other thing I liked is that he is quite an ‘innocent’ writer… he speaks as he finds without wondering if what he is saying is politically correct and actually forms an opinion of cultural differences that had me going, ooh he shouldn’t say that.. but on the plus, neither can he contain delight and joy at the people and places he goes to and that’s rather sweet. It’s slightly out of date at the present time, with leaders who are very much alive in the book now dead. Nonetheless, a good read if you don’t actually want to go to Iraq yourself but would like to know what it’s like there!
I only picked this book up because I was desperate for something to read. I’d got it at the Amnesty International Book Sale locally and devoured the rest, but somehow this got put to the bottom of the pile. I thought it would be a schmaltzy book, but in fact, it is anything but, and it’s meaningful in many ways. Charting the marriages of both grandmother Bernadine (in 1930’s Ireland) and granddaughter Tressa (contemporary New York) it’s a beautifully observed book about how marriage isn’t always a bed of roses and that relationships struggle with the same issues regardless of moment in time or country. Both women eventually come to a resolution within their relationships but it isn’t the sugar-sweet homily I had (unreasonably) expected it would be. The book is interspersed with recipes.. most of which were pretty unappealing to me, but it is written in such an engaging style that you are instantly drawn in.
This is such a sweet book with lots of anecdotes, some very sad and some very funny and all the more poignant to me because I’m in touch with Marc Abrahams, the author, on Twitter because of his work to banish puppy farms (see Puppy Farm tab on my home page). The dog who swallowed NINE golf balls.. the gerbil that needed a caeserean and a random donkey-nativity incident are all parceled up in an easily readable package.
Dom Joly’s book really piqued my interest in North Korea, one of the most obscure regimes in the world so I picked up this book, This Is Paradise!, by former resident of North Korea, Hyok Kang. While I am aware, from Dom’s book, that any tourism to NK is heavily monitored and visitors are not allowed to tour the country without an official guide, what goes one behind the scenes that visitors are shown is shocking. It’s a country always hungry because they just can’t produce enough food to feed the entire country and many other countries won’t supply them with food so basically they starve. Famine is a part of life. It’s a largely hidden regime, ruled entirely by dictatorship where the people know little of the world outside. Hyok Kang escaped NK (or PRNK = people’s republic of North Korea) in 2007. The book was gripping from start to finish..it focusses on Hyok’s childhood mainly..and I highly recommend it.
I really enjoyed this book by comedian Dom Joly where he heads off to holiday in non-tourist destinations such as North Korea, Cambodia and Iran. Although it has all the trademarks of Dom Joly’s humour, there are serious elements to it and it is in fact, an indepth look at the rise in ‘dark tourism’ where people want to travel to formerly unconsidered areas of the world. In fact, because of his experiences in North Korea, it made me buy other books about the country because I wanted to know more. The book is split into chapters by country visited, making it a great bedtime book because each country comes to a natural end before another ‘holiday’ starts.
If you’ve read Three Cups of Tea then this is an eye-opener. Basically, a man called Greg Mortensen founded a highly successful charity building schools in Afghanistan, where due to the terrain partly, there simply weren’t enough schools. He then wrote a book about his experiences, called Three Cups of Tea, which has now been found to be littered with inaccuracies and the multi-million dollar charity not all it seems. One particular inaccuracy just made me laugh; a paragraph in Greg’s follow up book has his holding the hand of Mother Theresa’s body, to which he had been given special access to pay respects to.. it transpires that in fact, Mother Theresa actually died three years before! Three Cups of Deceit is a very slim book; more of a bound article I would say and there is no point at all in reading it unless you are aware of the charity and have read the Three Cups of Tea. My jaw dropped on several occasions at the sheer chutzpah of the lies told in the first book, so on that level it was pretty entertaining!
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
If you love mind-games, you’ll probably whizz though this book about a fatally flawed friendship. As the book goes on, the dreadful incident that defines Katherine’s life is revealed, as is the true nature of her new friend, Alice. It’s not a brain stretcher but definitely a page turner.
Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris
This is a horrible, tortured piece of writing that I totally gave up on. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book, but this story of an ‘odd’ man still living at home with his mother while living an alternative life on line did me in. When you’re reading a one-person narrative that chops and changes (he is nominally writing an on-line novel on his web-journal) and you can’t tell what is fantasy or fact, but can pick up the very obvious *brewing storm* the whole thing just becomes tedious and frankly, I stopped caring what happened.
Beautiful by Katie Piper
This is a very inspirational read, but didn’t answer a lot of the questions I think other people would naturally have about Katie. It charts her journey from the dreadful acid attack through to starting her charity to help others with facial injuries. While there are no holds barred on an emotional level, things seemed very hurried towards the end and there was no clear explanation about how she could afford to live the independent life she lives now. The book explains that she had a compensation pay-out that wasn’t enough to buy a property so I just had this niggling question throughout of how she managed financially. This of course, does not take away from the awfulness of what she struggled through and it’s all kinds of miracles that Katie has turned her life around despite everything. What I found fascinating is the description of the man who arranged for the acid to be thrown; such a desperately damaged person with no rational concept of normal human behaviour. The worry is that people like him exist at all, but they do and that is salutory. Katie has been and continues to be brave beyond belief, inspiring to others and resolute in her determination to embrace the life she hadn’t inspected. I wished for a bit more detail towards the end of the book, but otherwise, I found it a worthwhile read.
Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster
I really enjoyed this story from Margaret Forster, whose books can lean to the downright depressing. It’s the story of her childhood in Carlisle and an exploration of family myths, including the fact that her grandmother never accounted for 23 years of her life (and an illigitimate child) and took the secrets to her grave in 1936. Margaret’s family weren’t rich, but neither were they poverty stricken, but her mother always wanted a life with more trappings than they had. In face, Margaret’s mother had a good job before she got married but married women weren’t considered employable so the family lived on one wage, despite her mother having good earning potential that would have made an acute difference to their lives. Margaret Forster writes in a very honest way, and had it been a novel, her mother would have realised that family and health were more important etc, but as it was, she never did and went to her grave rather bitter. On the upside, Margaret was sure she didn’t want a similar life, and despite marrying young and having a child almost straight away, she only briefly gave up her independence. So, the book charts three women’s lives and the slow progression of opinion and womens’ place in the world.
I’ve done a lot of reading over Christmas; kicking off with Hospital Babylon by Imogen Edward-Jones. It’s an amalgamation of real-life experiences of doctors working within the NHS and put into a first-person story. Actually, it isn’t nearly as shocking as you’d think and certainly nothing that you wouldn’t already have read about if you have half an eye on the papers, so I read it with a bit of a weary eye. It’s much as you’d expect from a failing system, cynical doctors and patients too sick or elderly to make a stand.
Twice a year in a local church, Amnesty International holds a book sale with thousands of books at silly prices. They’re mostly all donated by publishers so you quite often get proof books or unedited editions but that’s all part of the fun. Obviously, all the money raised goes to Amnesty. But, as well as donating to a great cause, it’s my opportunity to pick up books that I wouldn’t necessarily buy at full price because they’re not obvious choices. In fact, I like challenging my own pre-conceived ideas about what I should and shouldn’t be reading. I used to read what I thought I ‘ought’ to, rather than what I was drawn to, but now any book snobbery is well and truly out of the window. I just love reading and I will pretty well read anything (except Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.. I just couldn’t get to grips with it at all!).
So, last week I read The Lady’s Maid by Rosina Harrison. It’s a little bit more than an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ story but obviously these tales of two lives within one house are having their moment again thanks to Downton Abbey. Rosina Harrison was Lady’s Maid to Nancy Astor. Nancy was known to be eccentric, impulsive and incredibly difficult (interspersed with endearing qualities too, but not enough, in my view!). The book charts Rosina’s life at the beck and call of Nancy and how she learned to keep things running smoothly when Nancy was determined that they should not!
It’s very simply written, and doesn’t dish any real dirt, but more, gives an insight into daily life. Rosina remained loyal to Nancy until her death but she doesn’t betray confidences and is more of a raconteur. This book is a really quick and easy read; I really enjoyed it because it wasn’t a challenge but was hugely interesting. If anything, I thought Rosina a bit holier-than-thou and wished she’d share more of the juice, but in fact, the book is more about Rosina’s life with the Astors than the Astors themselves. I’d definitely recommend it as an easy, relaxing and rather lovely read.
I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. To cut to the chase, it’s all about how there is almost no such thing as luxury any more because it’s really all about the money. A good example from the book is how you can go into Louis Vuitton or similar and get exactly the same consumer experience as you would in Gap.. i.e. you pick out your product, take it to the till, someone shoves it in a bag, you pay and leave. Yet the concept of luxury used to be so different back in the day with personal service, bespoke ordering, appointment based purchasing, hand deliveries and impeccibly produced goods. Basically, by paying more, you got more, both in terms of service and goods.
Dana Thomas, the author, is the cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris, and her research is beyond the call of duty. She talks to major players in the fashion industry, such as Miuccia Prada and Bernard Arnault (LVMH) looking at the business aspects of luxury. Details such as 40% of Japanese people own a Louis Vuitton product, the biggest profit making store for Chanel in 2008 was Waikiki in Hawaii, and the shocking corner cutting to wring out yet more profit is just fascinating. Once upon a time, luxury goods, particularly leather goods, were made in Italy – nowadays, just about everything is outsourced to China where it can be made far more cheaply. The end result isn’t a cheaper product for the consumer, but a bigger profit for the brand.
It’s a brilliantly written book that I’ve been recommending to everyone who has ever lusted after a designer bag or fragrance.